“When you leave my cabin, William, please return to the village through the woods. Do not let anyone know where you’ve been.”
“I’m not afraid of you, Kate,” William said. “I don’t believe what the others say.”
“Ah, my friend. Thank you for making the journey to tell me, but there is no evidence I am a witch. I realise folk can be easily persuaded.”
“What will you do?”
“I don’t have much here.” She pulled her dark shawl over her shoulders and glanced back into the cabin. “I’ll be gone by morning.”
“Let me come with you. My life would mean nothing if I couldn’t visit with you.”
“You are but nineteen years, William.” Kate smiled and reached out to take his hands in hers. “You will find another girl who touches your heart.”
“No girl in the village can match your beauty, nor your kindness or sweet manner.”
“Oh, William. You make me feel as I’ve never felt before. You will be a fine catch for the right woman, but alas, I must move on again. I have no wish to bring you harm.”
“I feel alive when I’m near you. I would do anything to be with you, Kate.”
“Anything.” She nodded slowly. “There is a word easily said, but difficult to qualify.”
“I mean it sincerely. The villagers’ meeting is tonight before dark; they are superstitious. I will attend and speak well of you again, but in a louder voice.”
“If the others in the village actually believe I am a witch, you would put your life in danger. In two hundred years, no man has ever made such a commitment for me.”
“Ha, you always joke about your age. You are perhaps a year older than me.” He took a deep breath. “If I should die for your freedom, it is a price I will pay. To know I’ve paid with my life to save yours will be a small sacrifice.”
“In all these weeks you have come to visit me, I have felt strongly for you, but always considered your feelings to be a young man in first love.”
“Being in your presence makes my heart sing. You are no more than twenty years, and yet you have eased the ills of many of the village people and their children.”
“Minor ailments are easily diagnosed and treated with natural remedies.”
“If the elders insist on claiming you are a witch, they must hold a trial—”
“Please, William.” She shook her head. “There can be no fair trial without evidence.” Kate paused and gazed among the trees surrounding her small cabin. “Go now through the woods, while it is yet light.” She watched as her only real friend disappeared among the trees.
* * *
Kate answered the door to her simple dwelling. It was dusk, but a strange glow illuminated the area outside her cabin.
“How can I—” The lovely woman was unable to complete the question as she was pulled from her doorstep into a crowd of torch-bearing villagers.
“Burn the witch! Burn the witch!” The cries echoed throughout the forest.
Kate knew better than to argue with an angry crowd. If they were baying for blood and she protested, they might well end matters more quickly; on the bough of a tree. She made no effort to resist as her hands were pulled together at her front and lashed with rope. The length of rope was pulled by many hands, and Kate soon fell headlong to the ground.
As she was dragged among the crowd, many opinions were voiced.
“She must be a witch. How else could she know the wild flowers and herbs which heal?”
“Nobody remembers men helping to build her log cabin.”
“She is too pretty to be capable of building a place in the woods.”
“Perhaps she used sorcery,” said one man. “Why else would she live away from the village, out of sight?”
When the pace of the crowd slowed, Kate scrambled to her hands and knees and stood. She was clubbed from behind to ensure she remained on the ground. Unable to fight such a large number of people, she held grimly to the rope to relieve the pain in her wrists.
When the crowd arrived in the market square, it became evident they had made a decision about the woman’s guilt. In the centre of the small, dusty square was a single thick wooden stake, surrounded by bracken and twigs.
“Please, listen to me.” Kate pleaded as she was dragged ever closer to the place of execution. A blunt instrument was used on her pretty head, rendering her unconscious.
* * *
Kate woke with a pulling sensation in her arms. Both her hands were numb. She felt a throbbing in her skull, but when she opened her eyes the real horror of her situation became clear. She was barefoot, and her arms stretched upward. The binding on her wrists was slung over a simple metal hook which was hammered into the large wooden stake.
The villagers had gone to their homes but left an overnight guard.
The two senior hunters of the village sat on opposite sides of the red-haired maiden. Both men had a flaming torch stuck in the ground nearby their log seats. Neither looked at each other. They gazed upon the beauty who was tied to a stake, amidst a stack of wooden kindling. Kate’s body was partially uncovered where her clothing had been torn during the journey from her small dwelling.
“You are looking at my face and body.” Kate turned from one man, to the other. “When you gaze upon me, do you see a witch or a harmless young woman?”
“Yes,” Daniel said. “We gaze upon your face and body, and beautiful they are, enough to tempt any man for sure.”
“Don’t speak to her,” Henry said. “She is trying to bewitch us with her sultry voice. If we gaze upon her, we might fall under her spell.”
“It’s hard not to feast my eyes upon such a fine specimen of a woman. Indeed, if the village had not pronounced her a witch, I would have my way with her.”
“Of which pronouncement do you speak?” Kate said. “I have had no hearing.”
“You had no need to hear the evidence,” Henry said. “It has been declared you are a witch, and the village agreed by a majority vote; you will burn where you stand, at dawn.”
“If I were a witch, would I not free myself from these bindings and smote you both?”
“Aye, that ye’ might,” Daniel said. “Perhaps we captured you in sufficient numbers to weaken you.”
“Please. Gaze upon me. I am but a woman. Do not allow such a blinkered decision to allow a heinous act to take place.”
“Ah, we see well your beautiful figure and long legs,” Henry said. “Your tempting flesh should be covered like all women. You are indeed trying to bewitch us.”
“My legs and body are showing because my clothing was pulled from me. My shawl was torn from my head and shoulders. My hair hangs around my shoulders. Look at my head. Do you see horns or a pointed hat? Am I an old crone who cackles in the night?”
“Look away,” Daniel said. “She is surely beguiling us.”
And so it was, the men tried looking away, but into the night, they stole glances at the nubile body which hung helplessly, waiting to be burned alive at dawn. The burning would hide evidence of any tampering.
* * *
“Wake up,” Bart, the blacksmith shouted. “Come on. You men were supposed to be guarding this wench through the night.”
“She’s still there,” Daniel said. “There’s no harm done.”
“No thanks to you,” Bart said. He stepped close and ogled the condemned woman. “I’d be tempted to take her into my shed for a while before she must die.”
“We would gladly have joined you,” Henry said. “Alas, the people are coming.”
Village folk stepped out from between the buildings and along the dusty main road. The people formed a tight circle around the mound of wood in the centre of the square. The woman hung by her wrists, silently turned to gaze at all around her as the crowd gathered for their entertainment.
“No!” William cried. “You are all wrong.” He stumbled forward, with his wrists bound, bruises visible on his head and face. “Please, don’t do this to an innocent young woman who has done no harm.”
“I thought I ordered you to be secured until afterward,” the blacksmith said. “Unless you want to be knocked out again, I’d shut up and enjoy the fire.” The big man pushed William back from the edge of the encircling crowd, so he fell among nearby bushes.
“Burn the witch! Burn the witch!” The chant was echoed by every man, woman, and child calling for the murderous act.
Only William sought to fight the decision, and he was continually pushed to the back of the baying crowd.
The woman secured to the stake shook her head slowly and again gazed into the eyes of many of the villagers. She made no more attempts to plead for her life. These people were eager to make a human sacrifice, and there would be no stopping them.
“You may have healed some among us,” Bart, the blacksmith said, as he advanced with a lighted torch. “We can take care of ourselves, and there are those who became wise to you and your ways.”
Bart walked around the large pile of firewood and held the torch down to ignite several areas. Flames licked up through the smaller pieces of kindling, and thin wisps of smoke curled up around the forlorn figure at the stake.
Villagers cheered. Some lifted their children up to watch the spectacle.
“You have brought this upon yourselves.” Kate slowly shook her head as the flames climbed up through the wooden base to reach the stake, and her bare feet. The smoke grew blacker and thicker and entwined around the woman and the wooden pole, like a living, breathing, giant black snake.
When the thick, black column encompassed Kate, a blood-curdling scream emanated from within the smoke and flames. The crowd applauded and cheered. The smoke hid the flames, preventing them seeing the body being incinerated, but it didn’t matter.
“No!” a single voice cried out from behind the crowd.
“I warned you, boy.” The blacksmith swung a massive fist at William.
* * *
William sat up and rubbed his bruised head as he looked around. He leaned towards a tree to steady himself, and the metallic tang of blood was on his tongue. Smoke caught the back of his throat. He coughed and moved away from the direction of the billowing black cloud. The crowd cheered, clapped and danced around the burning pyre.
Tears poured from William’s eyes as he compelled himself to gaze upon the horrific sight of his beloved Kate dying to appease these people. William couldn’t see anything apart from a thick column of black smoke. As the villagers danced and frolicked around the small square, William tried to focus through his tears.
On the opposite side of the market place, near the blacksmith’s shed, a dark figure stood. A short distance beyond the crowd, standing, nodding towards William, was a beautiful woman the image of Kate. Her lips were moving, and though he heard no words, the woman’s next movement caused him to recall a conversation with Kate.
The figure raised her right hand under her chin, extended her fingers and blew a kiss.
One day when William had visited his friend, he’d told her of the mutterings and fears about witchcraft, and how the King himself had decreed all witches should be hunted down and burned alive.
“I understand these things,” Kate had said. “Burning at the stake is meant for those who use witchcraft to cause harm.”
“No, in our village, the elders have suggested that all witchcraft is evil, and anybody deemed to be a witch will suffer the consequences.”
“Yes, this may be so. The local people are content to bring those with sickness to me, and expect me to produce a cure.”
“Aye, they are indeed a selfish bunch.”
William stood now and wiped the tears from his eyes. When he gazed across the square, the mysterious figure had disappeared. A faint smile curled William’s lips as he recalled Kate laughing and shrugging off the idea of her being a witch.
“Remember one thing for me, William,” she’d said. “If the village ever condemns me and I’m to be executed as a witch, I will blow you a kiss. If I should do this, you must leave the village before they harm you. Go to the cave a short distance from my cabin.”
* * *
In the early morning, the day after the burning at the stake, one of the lecherous sentries who’d stood guard wandered across the small, dusty, market square.
“Well, isn’t that the strangest thing,” Daniel said, looking around. “There’s no body and no ashes.” He looked about. “There are no burn marks anywhere, and no scars on the ground—nothing to bear witness to what we did.”
He heard a whisper from nearby and turned. Somebody was standing in the shadows in the doorway of the blacksmith’s shed. It looked like a barely clothed young woman with long, red hair.
Daniel cast a glance around to see if his fellow huntsman, Henry, had arrived yet. No, there was no sign of him. Daniel smirked, seeing he was alone this early in the day. He strode to the shed.
Within a few minutes, Henry approached the market square and while looking for Daniel was beset by the same puzzle regarding the bonfire. No evidence of a fire existed. A movement caught Henry’s attention, and he turned. A shadowy figure moved near the blacksmith’s shed. Henry approached, and when he could see it was a sweet young woman, he went inside to investigate.
During the night when they’d acted as sentries in the market square, both Daniel and Henry had gazed longingly at the condemned woman. At different periods of the evening, they’d both sneaked across to the tethered beauty. Neither later talked about his experience, because they’d each received a sharp burn on the fingertips, and felt a great drowsiness come on when they’d touched the defenceless woman.
* * *
At midday, William strolled across the market square and addressed one of the village elders. “Good morning, Ferdinand. I apologise for my lack of wisdom about the witch, but I have great news.”
“Go on.” Ferdinand nodded in acceptance of William’s folly.
“Bart, the blacksmith has been called away on an errand and has taken Daniel and Henry, the village hunters. He told me to alert you to three fine pigs tied in the blacksmith’s shed.”
“How unusual that the three men who were elected to feed us have gone wandering off. What else did the blacksmith have to say?”
“He told me you should slaughter the three pigs in a fire as you did the witch. The villagers were highly entertained, but this time they would also have an excellent feast to follow the fire.”
“A fine idea,” Ferdinand said. “You go about your business, and I will arrange the feast.”
William strolled away and watched from a distance. When the door to the blacksmith’s shed was opened, the three animals, which had not been tethered, bolted for freedom, squealing as they ran.
“Well, I don’t know why the blacksmith kept those animals a secret, but they’re a secret no longer.” Ferdinand sent a party of men after the pigs.
William left the village and walked through the woods.
It took most of the day, but the three animals were brought back to the village, all squealing until they were duly roasted alive on a bonfire in the market square. The villagers ate their fill and for the second evening, danced until late.
Only one villager missed the festivities.
While the others were occupied in celebration and feasting, William was in the cave, behind where a small log cabin had once stood. When William had made his way through the woods, he was surprised to note that Kate’s cabin had disappeared. In its place was a small area of grass, covered in ashes. William’s vision had fogged once more with tears as he made his way towards the cave.
* * *
When William woke up in the cave at dawn, he was relieved, although surprised to find a small bowl of juice and a few pieces of fruit. As he enjoyed an excellent breakfast, William tried to recall how long he’d slept. He remembered arriving at the cave, and he’d felt a presence in the shadows.
A voice had whispered for him to lie down and rest. It had sounded like Kate, which led William to comply without question. All thoughts of her being burned alive in a bonfire had disappeared when he heard her sweet voice. While he slept, William was sure he had been given instructions for when he woke up. He had nothing to lose. Kate had gone, but if the memory of her suggested he did something—William would comply.
The young man had no worldly possessions because when he had stood in defence of his friend Kate, his landlord evicted him and left him in the street. On the day of the burning, William had been made homeless, been soundly beaten, tied with ropes and locked away in a shed. He had kept his promise to Kate and had continued to defy authority on her behalf.
* * *
When he left the cave, William was refreshed as best he could for what lay ahead. The subliminal message he remembered from his dreams was to walk for four days towards where the sunrise appeared. He must commence his journey by walking through the village, but should not speak to, or offer assistance to anybody.
As he walked through the village where he had lived, William saw and heard terrible things, but continued on his way as instructed. He drank from streams and fed on plants and herbs he found along the way. On each occasion, as hunger was taking him, he felt drawn to certain greenery and would eat his fill until ready to continue his journey. He had never been taught which shrubs and herbs were safe to eat but felt guided when the need arose.
On the fourth day of his quest, William was consumed with hunger and thirst but found neither a clear, running stream, nor foliage beckoning him to eat. He walked on until late in the evening when he was exhausted. A light rain fell and caused him to seek shelter. He turned his face upward to look for a drink from the heavens.
It was fortuitous, when the rain was at its heaviest, William saw a candle flame in the woods. He stumbled from the track and between the trees. He was weak, and hungry when he came across a small log cabin, and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” a voice whispered when the door opened. A person in a dark cloak with a hood stood back from the door.
The only light within was afforded by the single candle flame and a small fire on the opposite side of the room.
“Sit by the fire,” the voice whispered. “Take this hot drink, and tell me of your travels.”
“Thank you.” William shivered as he accepted the clay mug of hot liquid. He tried to see the person within the cloak, but gave up and sat by the fire. The young man lifted the drink to his lips and sipped. He swallowed and stared at the flickering flames as he spoke.
“I’ve walked for four days from the village where I lived ….”
William went on to relate the tale of his friend, whom he’d loved with all his heart, and who he tried to defend. He explained how he had been detained while the villagers set about sacrificing the love of his life.
“Twice, I thought I’ve seen her since,” William said. “I risked my life to save Kate.”
“Your life is a high price indeed,” the woman in the shadows whispered.
William continued to gaze into the fire. “The villagers have paid a high price.”
“In what way?”
“First of all, a handful of prominent men went missing, and three fat pigs were discovered, but they escaped.” William shook his head. “I still don’t understand why, but it occurred to me, Kate had told me these things might happen. She’d told me what I should do, and I followed her instructions.”
“What happened next?”
“The escaped animals were hunted down and slaughtered. The village had a huge feast.”
“Did you take part?”
“No. I wanted nothing to do with those people. I went to a secret place where I could feel close to my one true friend. I stayed there for a day and night and left. I passed through the village. I wanted to condemn them before I left, but in a dream, Kate suggested to take note of what I saw, but continue on my way.”
“Did you condemn them?”
“They were already condemned. The blacksmith and the two hunters were important to the village, and they were all missing. Every living soul was sick, in pain and screaming for help. They didn’t deserve mercy because Kate was worth more than all of them combined.”
“William.” The beautiful woman said clearly as she removed the hood of her dark cloak. “I have one opportunity to leave immortality behind. If I choose the right partner for my new life, I will be afforded the chance to be normal, like you.”
“Kate, is it really you?” William gasped, his eyes opening wide as he stood.
“Yes, but please remain seated.” Kate went on to explain how she’d never lied to William about her real age. Yes, she appeared to be twenty-one, but she’d been the same age for two hundred years. She could only age naturally if she became mortal.
“Wait,” William said. “What happens if you choose the wrong partner?”
“The person I choose will become immortal, and I will die.”
William’s brow furrowed as he tried to contemplate what he was seeing and hearing. “What happens if you make the right choice?”
“I will become mortal, and the natural partnership will be long-lived and blessed.”
“How will you know you’ve made the correct decision?”
“I must ask my selected partner a question, and we must both sip a special potion.” She stepped closer, and her lovely features bore lines of worry. “If my partner answers correctly, we will both be saved, but, if he gives the wrong answer, he will become immortal, and I will die; within an hour of drinking the potion.”
“Have you decided who you would like your partner to be?”
“Yes, William. I’ve chosen you. In all my long life you are the only person to have accepted me and loved me unconditionally.”
“What must I do for my part, apart from answering a question?”
“You must sip from the same potion as me.”
“Give me the cup.” William turned on the stool. “I’ll drink it now.”
“You’ve already taken a drink,” Kate said. “The cup is in your hands.”
William licked his lips and looked down at the warm clay bowl. “Go on—ask what you will.”
“If the price of us being together was that all of the villagers had to die, would you let them die, or would you sacrifice our time together to let them live?”
William glanced at the fire, before turning to gaze at the woman of his dreams.
“I know it hurts, be we must learn forgiveness,” he said. “If I condemned an entire village, I would be damning the innocent alongside the guilty, and the children along with the adults. I know neither of us would settle for such an outcome.” He took a deep breath and shook his head slowly. “I could not condemn the innocent and live at peace.”
Kate reached out and took the cup with the potion. “Please, let me look at you for a moment.” Kate’s eyes sparkled with the reflection of the flames in the fireplace. “Now, you must leave me and rest.”
“What about you, and drinking the potion?”
“I will not allow the possibility of you seeing me becoming my actual age.” Kate’s lips curled briefly into a smile. “Now, go to the room next door and lie down; you will sleep. In the morning, I will either be here, or I will not.”
He knew better than to argue. William gave a weak smile and feasted his eyes on Kate, before leaving her, possibly for the last time.
* * *
When William woke up to the sound of birds singing, he lay still and tried to remember where he was. One minute later he was in the main room holding an empty clay cup. Kate was nowhere to be seen, and William dashed outside.
A movement in the nearby bushes caught his attention, and he ran from the cabin.
“Kate—Kate, are you there?”
“Good morning.” Kate was standing beside a small, fenced, grassy field, which contained a horse, a cow, four sheep, two pigs, and a variety of poultry.”
“You’re here, and you’re okay.” William approached her.
Kate embraced her man.
William held his mortal woman tight, and as he looked over her shoulder, his gaze moved from left to right, and back. “Where did all this come from?”
“Before I lost all my powers, I imagined we might need a little help in our new life together.” Kate winked.
Taken from ‘Temptation: and other stories‘